National Popular Vote initiative captures a big prize

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week signed into law a bill adding New York, with its 31 electoral votes, to the list of states that promise to support for president whichever candidate wins the most popular votes nationwide.

That brings to 165 the number of electoral votes that are thus pledged to change the Electoral College system, without amending the Constitution. The pledges don’t take effect until enough electoral votes are lined up to guarantee a winner. It takes 270 electoral votes to guarantee election of a president so the California action gets the idea 61 percent of the way there.

Regular readers of this space know about this initiative, organized by a group called National Popular Vote. I’ve written about it before, most recently here  (and that piece will also get you some of the chief arguments pro and con). California, the biggest electoral vote prize, is already on board. New York is the third biggest (Texas, where the law has not passed) is second. A bill to add Minnesota to the list of states has been introduced in recent sessions, including the current one, but it has received no action this year.

I assume the sledding will get tougher if the idea gets closer to realization. The list of states that have passed the bill is dominated by blue states, but the support does not break down along strictly partisan lines. The Senate in the bright red state of Oklahoma recently passed the law, with almost half of Senate Republicans supporting it. Other than the fact that the last president to be elected while losing the popular vote (George W. Bush in 2000) it’s not that clear to me why this should be a partisan issue.

Although New York is a solid blue state in presidential elections, the National Poupular Vote plan passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses. (The New York Senate passed it by 57-4 with 30 Dems and 27 Repubs in favor and two Dems and two Repubs opposed). In Minnesota, it has support from legislators of both parties but so far not enough to get it passed.

I favor the proposal mildly and have no idea whether it has a chance of becoming law. My feeling is simply that it’s bad for democracy to have a system in which the popular vote winner can lose, as has happened four times in our history. But I admit I’m also bothered by the absurdity of an election system in which 40 or so of the 50 states are ignored by the presidential campaigns because they are considered to be in the bag for one party or the other while most campaign resources (let’s say advertising dollars, campaign staff and candidate visits) are focused on the relative few that have been found by polling to be “in play.”

I can’t see what’s so great about a system in which the “swing state” quirk is so powerful. Other than the owners of TV stations in Ohio and Florida, I’m not sure who benefits from this weird quality.

National Popular Vote recently analyzed this weirdness by tracking the campaign visits by the presidential and vice presidential candidates in the final campaign period between the conventions and Election Day. Big surprise: 38 states got zero visits. Ohio got 73. Florida got 40; Virginia 36; Iowa 27.

Minnesota got one, from Paul Ryan. The full map showing the visits is here.

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